Champion or cheat? How will we ever know…
Champion or cheat? This question has hung over the head of the American cyclist, Lance Armstrong, for more than a decade. Despite the dramatic conclusion to the case against Armstrong by the US Anti Drug Agency [USADA], the question will remain unanswered.
That is because, apart from Armstrong and those close to him, nobody can honestly claim to know the truth. He continues to protest his innocence. Supporters of Armstrong will continue to observe that he has never failed a drugs test amongst the more than 500 he has taken during his stellar career.
Detractors, including the seemingly jealous sections of the French media, will continue to assert that the American was involved in a long-running, systematic conspiracy to cheat his way to victory.
Followers of the sport are perplexed, but ultimately none-the-wiser about the truth. Claims on both sides have merit, but many people are left with an uneasy feeling that the USADA process is flawed, and the case was driven by sporting politics.
Armstrong burst upon the US cycling scene of 1991, winning the national amateur road championship, after success as a triathlete. Two years later, he stunned the cycling world by winning the rainbow jersey at the World Championships in Norway. At just 21, he was one of the youngest world champions ever.
For the next few years, his career advanced on the European circuit, with Armstrong claiming places in classics and two stages of the Tour de France. In 1995, his well-known battle with testicular cancer almost took his life. Armstrong overcame the disease, and returned to cycling, to dominate the Tour de France for seven years.
The drug allegations started from his first Tour win in 1999. It was then that a urine sample detected small traces of corticosteroid, but a medical certificate indicated he had used a cream approved for saddle sores.
In 2005, the French newspaper, L’Équipe, alleged that the American had returned a positive test for EPO during the 1999 Tour, but an investigation was inconclusive after suggestions of tampering. The issue has dogged Armstrong ever since.
The issue split the cycling world, with riders and commentators taking different sides. The greatest road cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, has stood by the US rider, while Armstrong’s compatriot and three-time Tour winner, Greg LeMond, has criticized him.
An American Grand Jury investigation was terminated with no charges against Armstrong.
A Texas court recently allowed the USADA process to continue, but the judge was critical of many aspects of the proceedings.
In his decision, Judge Sam Sparks took USADA to task, stating, “there are troubling aspects of this case, not least of which is USADA’s apparent single-minded determination to force Armstrong to arbitrate the charges against him, in direct conflict with the Union Cycliste Internationale’s equally evident desire not to proceed against him.”
In another part of the decision, Judge Sparks writes, “Among the Court’s concerns is the fact that USADA has targeted Armstrong for prosecution many years after his alleged doping violations occurred, and intends to consolidate his case with those of several other alleged offenders, including - incredibly - several over whom USA Cycling and US Olympic Committee apparently have no authority whatsoever.
Further, if Armstrong’s allegations are true, and USADA is promising lesser sanctions against other allegedly offending riders in exchange for their testimony against Armstrong, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that USADA is motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention than faithful adherence to its obligations to USOC.”
This is a highly troubling aspect of the case. If former teammates, motivated by jealousy, spite or revenge, can bring allegations in a private arbitration process, there can be little faith in it. If, as alleged, others riders were offered indemnity to dump on Armstrong, should not the public be informed?
It is interesting that USADA officials could only infer that Armstrong must have been guilty because he said “enough is enough”, effectively labelling the process a Kangaroo Court that in which he would have no further part. If the process was so rigorous, then the evidence should have been made public. And if a Grand Jury investigation led to nothing, what was different here?
The head of the World Anti Drug Agency - Australian, John Fahey - should order an independent investigation into the whole process. If WADA wants to instill public confidence in its processes, it should disclose what happened in the US proceedings, including addressing the allegations that ‘sweetheart’ deals were done with other competitors.
Otherwise, we are left with the troubling suspicion that the case has been motivated by questionable aims and personal hubris.
Whether Armstrong is stripped of his victories remains a matter for the UCI. For those of us who follow cycling, and who fervently wish it to be drug-free, the result is totally unsatisfactory.
Cheat or champion? Who knows?
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